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Celebrating Walt Whitman the Long Islander, 200 years after he was born

2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth

2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of poet Walt Whitman, seen in a portrait circa 1887. Credit: Library of Congress

In February, the popular New York City history podcast “The Bowery Boys” devoted a show — done before a live audience at the trendy Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn — to the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman.

The podcast’s hosts, Greg Young and Tom Meyers, started by reminding the audience that although the poet spent much of his life in Brooklyn, he was born in the most uncool place imaginable to hip residents of that borough -- Long Island.

“Tom,” Young playfully asked his co-host, “do you know you can actually visit Walt Whitman’s home today? The birthplace is actually in Huntington. And it’s actually across the street from a shopping mall. And it’s literally next door to a Men’s Wearhouse.”

The audience erupted in laughter at the apparently tasteless juxtaposition.

“Well,” quipped Meyers. “He always was a snappy dresser.”

The hosts quickly moved on to Whitman’s life in Brooklyn and New York, jumping away from his Long Island beginning as if it were a cheap suit.

Most contemporary Long Islanders are probably familiar with the shopping mall on Route 110 named after Whitman. Many may also know that Whitman’s birthplace, a state historic site, is nestled across the street on Old Walt Whitman Road. And though it might challenge the imagination to envision the area as it inspired Whitman’s verse, separating Whitman from Long Island is like trying to explain Abe Lincoln without Illinois.

From his rural roots here, Whitman would go on to become one of the most influential and significant American poets. “He’s viewed today as a modern voice even though he lived two centuries ago,” said Cynthia Shor, executive director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association.

His reputation as an innovator, she said, is partly based on Whitman’s then-radical use of free verse — poems that are not developed around a rhyming structure. “Every poet that comes along is looking for his new voice, and their own tradition and they look to Whitman to see how he did it,” she explained.

In his poems, Whitman celebrated the then-new nation of America, and especially the parts he knew best.

“Long Island was very important to him,” said Karen Karbiener, a professor at New York University and a Whitman scholar who was also a guest on that podcast. “He was proud of his roots there.”

Indeed, the Whitman family had a long history here before Walt arrived on May 31, 1819. His ancestors had helped settle Suffolk County in the 1600s; several had fought in the American Revolution; and by the early 19th century, many were successful farmers and merchants. His immediate family lived in the section of Huntington known as West Hills. So extensive was the family’s presence here that early maps refer to the area as “Whitmansdale.”

While Walt and his family would move to Brooklyn when he was young, he would return to Long Island to visit. And in youth and early adulthood, from 1836 to 1842, he lived and worked in various Island communities as an itinerant schoolteacher and newspaper editor. In the verdant meadows and sandy shores of his native Island, he also found inspiration.

“He used to talk about Long Island as its own little universe,” Karbiener said.

That little universe extended across modern Nassau and Suffolk counties, where Whitman’s footprints are everywhere (even if the areas' names have changed) from West Hills to West Babylon, Garden City to Greenport.

“One could not drive from east to west, from north to south, or diagonally across Long Island without crossing Whitman’s path, probably many times,” according to historian Bertha Funnell. “There are few stretches of beach or bay, ocean or sound, where he has not walked or sat to meditate.”

Since Funnell wrote those words in her 1971 book “Walt Whitman on Long Island,” the poet’s path may have faded, as modern Nassau and Suffolk have continued to become more densely populated. Yet, traces remain of Whitman’s Long Island. Especially in West Hills, where Karbiener brings students periodically for what she calls her “Whitmaniacs Tour.”

It starts at the house where Whitman was born, now the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site. Built around 1810, probably by his father, Walter, a carpenter, the house was situated on an existing north-south thoroughfare — today’s Route 110 — that was referred to at the time as simply “the Road to Amityville.” (Or, as birthplace historian Margaret Guardi says dryly, “If you lived in Amityville, it was the Road to Huntington.”)

A stretch of the road’s original footprint passes the house on the west side and is named after the poet: Old Walt Whitman Road.

Whitman’s birthplace is a 2 1/2-story, Federal-style house, with a separate one-and-a-half-story wing. The rustic but spacious dwelling accommodated a large brood: The 1820 census showed 10 people living there, including a very young Walt and his older brother Jesse, as well as relatives and farmhands.

Whitman didn’t stay long in the house: Just before his fourth birthday, the family moved to Brooklyn — meaning the fast-growing village in what we would now call Downtown Brooklyn.

The Whitman’s Long Island home changed owners over the decades. In the late 1940s, a movement gathered steam to turn the house into a museum and a historic landmark, led by a number of prominent local citizens (including Newsday founder and publisher Alicia Patterson). The birthplace became a New York State Historic Site in 1957.

Restored to the way it would have looked in the early 1820s, and with a modern visitor’s center adjacent to it, the birthplace welcomes about 5,700 visitors a year. It will host a major Whitman 200th birthday weekend celebration later this month.

As the Bowery Boys joked, one could leave the birthplace and stop by a clothing store next door; or grab sushi at the Japanese restaurant across the street. But modern suburbia hasn’t completely eradicated Whitman’s old neighborhood. A left on Chichester Road — northwest from the birthplace — will take you into the heart of old Whitmansdale.

Amid the winding roads of the modern-day affluent suburban neighborhood stand a number of homes, some from the late 17th and 18th centuries, that belonged to Whitman’s ancestors — as well as what was once a school Walt’s older brother Jesse attended.

But perhaps the most intriguing of the existing Whitman-era structures in West Hills is the Chichester or Peace and Plenty Inn, a rambling 17th century tavern, constructed of red clapboard. The inn, built in 1690, was the designated place for West Hills town meetings, as well as a place of entertainment, including the then-popular Long Island pastime of guessing a prized hog’s weight, the latter an event that Walt recalled attending.

Whitman also included in one of his short stories a vivid description of a “quaint, low-roofed village tavern,” based on the Chichester Inn. The current owner and resident, Jimmy Dolan, can attest to the low ceilings. “I have to bend down to get through some of the doors,” said Dolan, who stands just over 6 feet tall.

Despite that inconvenience, Dolan, who has owned the house since 2008, calls the nearly 340-year-old home “very livable.” Appropriately enough, he graduated from Walt Whitman High School (established in 1957) and has visited the birthplace. Reflecting that the inn was nearly 130 years old when Whitman was born, he says “it’s amazing it’s stayed as good as it is.”

Barely a mile from the birthplace is West Hills County Park and what might be the literal and figurative high point of Whitman’s Long Island: Jayne’s Hill. At just over 400 feet, Jayne’s Hill is one of the steepest prominences in Nassau-Suffolk.

Whitman walked there frequently, and he wrote that from its peak, he could see all of Long Island before him: The ocean to the south, the Sound to the north.

For many years, longtime hiker and Whitman enthusiast Tom Casey has led a four-mile hike through West Hills County Park that culminated at the top of Jayne’s Hill. Next to a plaque engraved with the words of Whitman’s ode to Long Island (or “Paumanok,” as he preferred to refer to it, using its American Indian name), the hikers would pause while he read some of Whitman’s writing.

Today, it would be difficult to see the water in either direction — but not because of overdevelopment. Just the opposite: Jayne’s Hill is surrounded by trees. In Whitman’s time, the land had been cleared for farming and grazing.

Casey, vice president of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, says that about 20 years ago, his group approached the local parks department about restoring that view. They obliged by trimming some of the foliage to the south. “For a while you could get the bay or the ocean view that Walt had,” Casey said. “But the trees have grown back.”

It’s Whitman’s connection to the natural world that resonates with Casey. “Like a lot of people, I view him as Long Island’s first ecologist,” Casey says. “In his descriptions, you can tell that he really appreciated nature.”

The full scope and diversity of the Island’s topography — as well as its populated areas — unfolded before Whitman when he took the Long Island Rail Road from his Brooklyn home to Greenport, where his sister Mary Elizabeth moved after her marriage in 1840. Mary Elizabeth lived in a house on South Street that still stands. Brother Walt was so taken by the area that he placed an ad in a Sag Harbor newspaper in 1846, looking to buy land on the East End.

In the early 1850s, short articles about Whitman’s trip to Greenport — “Letters from Paumanok” — appeared in the New York Evening Post. But later, on the eve of the Civil War, he published a fuller, more in-depth account of his train travel across Long Island in the Brooklyn Standard. These stories, published later as part of an anthology of his journalistic writing about New York, are little known except to the most ardent Whitmaniacs. It is a veritable Long Island travelogue; full of interesting characters and Whitmanesque wit.

The trip itself, however, wouldn’t have been luxurious.

“It was probably a jerky, uncomfortable ride,” says LIRR historian David Morrison. “But they would have been breezing along at 30 to 35 miles per hour, which was fast for those days.”

Even at that breakneck speed, Whitman made careful observations. Of particular interest, was what he saw east of Jamaica in what is now Nassau County (then eastern Queens): A “prairie-like expanse of land,” is how he described the great Hempstead Plains. “The character of the country now becomes flat and bare of trees, the houses are far apart from each other.”

He stopped and took a stroll through Hempstead — “The village is rather a pleasant one of about 1,400 inhabitants,” he wrote.

Whitman poked fun at the hamlet that developer Valentine Hicks had promised would become a boomtown but had yet to materialize: “Hicksville! that place of vanished greatness! An immense city was sure to be that Hicksville!”

And he lauded Farmingdale, a community that had sprung up around the railroad, as a place “where you begin to come among the more popular specimens of humanity that good old Long Island produces.”

After arriving at Greenport station, Whitman would go fishing off the docks, where he met a party of “lively young girls conveyed by a clerical personage, and one or two younger persons” who were sailing to Montauk. Whitman is invited to join them and he does. “We sailed along at a stiff rate — told anecdotes and riddles, and chatted and joked and made merry.” He concluded his day on Gardiners Bay in a state of Long Island euphoria. “To lie on my back and gaze at the passing clouds — merely to breathe and live in that sweet air and clear sunlight — to hear the musical chatter of the girls — was happiness enough for one day.”

As much as Long Island may have changed in two centuries, one can still sail its bays, stretch out on its beaches and hike its parks — and feel as Walt Whitman did about his “Paumanok.”

Bicentennial events

The Walt Whitman Birthplace in Huntington will be celebrating the poet's 200th birthday May 31 to June 2 with a weekend of special activities, including daily tours, a panel discussion with Whitman scholars, a marathon reading of "Leaves of Grass," and presentation of a one-man play about Whitman. For a complete itinerary of the weekend's events (most of which are free), visit waltwhitman.org.

There will also be a hike, led by New York University Professor Karen Karbiener, to the top of Jayne's Hill, on May 31 at 3:30 p.m., followed at 5 p.m. by a "grand celebratory toast" to Whitman's 200th birthday, including cake and libations. For a detailed description of Karbiener's tour of historic West Hills and "Whitmansdale," visit her website, waltwhitmaninitiative.org.

— John Hanc

More Urban Outfitters than Abercrombie?

With respect to Walt Whitman High School, the mall that bears the poet’s name is probably the most visible tribute to Whitman on Long Island. And the connection was strengthened in 2013: When the shopping center was renovated and renamed the Walt Whitman Shops, a new, 8-foot high bronze statue of the poet was erected in front — just a thousand yards from his birthplace.

Still, misconceptions about Whitman and, oddly enough, his relationship to the mall persist. Whitman look-alike Darrel Blaine Ford, who has portrayed the poet for 46 years in talks at schools and libraries around Long Island, said that he is sometimes shocked by questions from his audiences.

"I have met people who actually thought that Walt Whitman owned the mall," he said. Of course, Whitman didn't. The mall was built in the late 1950s — more than half a century after Whitman's death in 1892 in Camden, New Jersey.

But if he were around today, would Walt Whitman shop at the Walt Whitman Shops?

Maybe. Whitman was famous for self-promotion. He also understood image — and fashion, although Tom Meyers, co-host of "The Bowery Boys," a New York City history podcast, said that if he went shopping at the mall, his tastes would be more Urban Outfitters, less Abercrombie & Fitch.

"Whitman was sort of the original grunge artist," Meyers said. "He kind of dresses down in a way that makes him look like a Williamsburg hipster of today."

But the convivial Whitman enjoyed talking with people from all walks of life. "He loved meeting real people," Meyers added.

So if Walt were around today, would he stroll across the street to hang around the Food Court, sipping lattes and chatting up the baristas at Starbucks? "If that was a way to meet people," birthplace historian Margaret Guardi said, "he'd be there."

— John Hanc

'Paumanok'

Sea-beauty! stretch’d and basking!

One side thy inland ocean laving, broad, with copious commerce, steamers, sails,

And one the Atlantic’s wind caressing, fierce or gentle — mighty hulls dark-gliding in the distance.

Isle of sweet brooks of drinking water — healthy air and soil!

Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine!

— Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass (1888)

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